Melendez starts new chapter at FIU

FIU athletics director Pete Garcia has made splashy hires since taking the position at FIU in 2006. He hired former NBA great Isaiah Thomas as his head men’s basketball coach in 2009. More recently he hired former University of Miami and Cleveland Browns coach Butch Davis as his head football coach and even took the NCAA mandated test to help him recruit players to FIU.

On June 28, 2016, Garcia made a less splashy, but good hire when he introduced former Bethune-Cookman and Alabama State head baseball coach Mervyl Melendez as the head baseball coach at FIU. A native of Carolina, Puerto Rico, Melendez becomes the first HBCU graduate to coach a Division I non-HBCU since Tuskegee graduate Miles McAfee was hired by St. Mary’s in 1973.  Howard graduate Bubba Watson is believed to be the first, hired by the University of Washington in 1972. 

“It’s a great honor to be where I am now, but you can’t lose sight of where you come from,” said Melendez, whose Panthers open the season at home with a three-game series against Jacksonville State on Friday. “I am a product of an HBCU, not only on the coaching side but the education side as a graduate of Bethune-Cookman and as a former employee of Alabama State, that has made me the coach I am today and I look forward to representing the people that have touched my career and my life.

“We knew the goal was to eventually get back to Florida and Florida International has what I thought was a great situation for me and my family and my career knowing that the recruiting part of it would be great at FIU.”

After a combined 17 years between B-CU and ASU, Melendez established himself as one of the best coaches in college baseball, named one of Baseball America’s top 10 head coaches under in 2013. He didn’t need his bosses’ help recruiting and hit the ground running as the Panthers were ranked as the No.1 recruiting class for 2017 according to Perfect Game USA.

“This is what top 10 programs are made of,” said Garcia who said when he did the research, Melendez’s name kept popping up and it was a “no-brainer” to hire him. “Players are coming to play for him. “It’s about his knowledge of the game and how he’s going to make them better and how he’s building a top, ranked, national program.

“His connections in the state of Florida, Puerto Rico and USA Baseball, the staff he’s put together… It’s more than one thing, to do and accomplish what he’s been able to accomplish this quickly.”

Melendez is used to having success quickly. He was the second youngest Division I coach to 300 wins and the second fastest to 500 wins. But until now, that did not translate to coaching bigger programs.

“Within the last two years I was offered a job at the University of New Orleans,” said Melendez during his appearance on the national sports talk show FROM THE PRESS BOX TO PRESS ROW w/ Donal Ware last week. “I declined the opportunity only because I didn’t think it was the right time for me.”

New Orleans is a member of the Sunbelt Conference and taking on that job would have meant a total overhaul and rebuild for Melendez and his staff. UNO was a combined 26-78 in its first two seasons in the Southland Conference.

Melendez decision to stay at Alabama State paid off as the Hornets finished a perfect 24-0 in SWAC play in 2016, on its way to the SWAC championship and an appearance in the NCAA Division I regional for the first-time ever.

Deciding to leave his alma mater Bethune-Cookman after the 2011 season for a different challenge at Alabama State – which had just built a brand new stadium – the Hornets finished 20-36 in his first season. The ASU program hadn’t won 20 games since 2002.

Melendez ultimately overhauled Alabama State’s program and went 158-117 in five seasons winning 31 or more games and going over .500 four of those five years. He built the program into one of the most respected in the South and the best in the SWAC finishing first in the Eastern Division in 2014 and 2015. During his five years in Montgomery, his teams defeated nationally-ranked No.4 Miami, No.17 Cal-State Fullerton and No.28 South Alabama. ASU also defeated SEC opponents Auburn and Tennessee, as well as Troy, UAB and Jacksonville State.

What Melendez was able to do at Alabama State was remarkable considering the state of the program before his hire. But it was Bethune-Cookman where he made his mark as one of the best young coaches in the country.

An All-MEAC player in 1995 and 1996 for the Wildcats, he served as an assistant coach for three years before taking over the program in 2000. In 12 seasons, his teams won 11 MEAC championships and he was named Coach of the Year nine times. His teams won 38 games against top programs. Eighteen of his players were drafed including pitcher Hiram Burgos who more recently pitched with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2013 and Peter O’Brien, drafted in the second round of the 2012 MLB Draft by the New York Yankees, who played in 28 games for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2016, hitting five homeruns. Melendez finished with a record of 379-319, winning 30 or more games in a season nine times.

Melendez releshis the challenege of taking over a program that has had success, including in recent years, making it to the NCAA Regionals in 2010, 2011 and 2015, but that hasn’t been consistent going 29-29 in 2016.

“It has a rich tradition,” said Melendez. “For me we have to be consistently a contender. We know it might not happen every year, but me and my staff are williing to work extra hard and we know what it would take to be one of the top teams in the conference. We want to make FIU a top team in [C-USA] and a national contender.”

FIU’s first four opponents are at home. The Panthers host Bethune-Cookman on April 11 and will travel to Daytona Beach to take on the defending MEAC champions on May 3.

On returning to Daytona Beach for the first time since Melendez left in 2011, he said: “There’s going to be a sense of pride. I’m going to have to try and coach the game and not think too much. It’ll be a little bit diificult I won’t lie to you, a lot of emotions will be running through my mind.”